David Walk
David Walk

Salt of the earth

Many of us love our salty snacks. Give me chips over candy, every time. As a matter of fact, Mark Kurlansky in his book, ‘Salt, A World History’, claims that, ‘The history of the United States is one of constant warfare over salt.’ Actual battles over salt supplies were waged between Americans and British in the US Revolution and later between North and South in the Civil War. But probably the biggest combat has been over the salt content of American diets. Humans need salt in their diet, but for many of us excess salt can be life threatening. So, it’s not surprising that the story of salt goes back many thousands of years, and eventually featured prominently in our Temple service, beginning with this week’s Torah reading.

Our parsha states: And you shall salt every one of your meal offerings with salt, and you shall never omit the salt of your God’s covenant from upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices (Vayikra 2:13). That’s a high concentration of salt. It’s mentioned four times. The verse also seems to hint at a concept called BRIT MELECH (Bamidbar 18:19). Rashi, on our verse, claims that ‘there was a covenant made with salt since the six days of Creation.’ But what is this BRIT (covenant), and what is the significance of salt?

The most famous explanation is that ‘salt covenants’ are eternal, just as salt prevents food stuffs from spoiling. I hope that’s true of the nuclear weapon agreements between the major powers called the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Agreements. Please, let those treaties last.

Reb Nachman flavors the discussion with the comment that a BRIT itself is like salt, because it seasons, and spices the experience and relationship between the parties. This follows from the comment in the Zohar that if it weren’t for the seasoning powers of salt, we couldn’t bear the bitterness of life.

On the other hand, the Mei Shiloach (Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz), views salt as negative, because salted fields won’t yield crops, and salt water is unpotable. Curious, in other words, salt is one of those items which can be a blessing or a curse, a cure or a plague. The Mei Shiloach views the salt as a warning in an offering or an agreement. Keep your part of the bargain or the negative aspects of salt will curse your existence.

There’s another aspect to the ingredients of an offering which must be considered. The heavy demand for salt on everything offered on the altar is balanced by an urgent warning against including honey in any offering. Does this seem to advocate for those who see salt as negative and a warning? Not necessarily. There is a general reality about honey which is starkly different from salt. Honey is sweet and can be enjoyed on its own; salt tends to work with the taste of the other food stuffs. Salt, in the proper proportion, is an enhancer. It makes the other product a star. It relishes its supporting role.

This reminds us of the Midrash about Torah. The Talmud tells us that God created the YETZER HARA (evil inclination). That should scare us. However, God informs us that Torah was also created to act as a spice (TAVLIN) to help us control this negative force. In this sense Torah isn’t just an antidote to the negativity of life. It is also an enhancer to make life more livable or palatable.

Salt has a similar role, both preserving things and enhancing them. This special aspect of salt is, I believe, hinted at in Kabbalistic sources, here salt is seen as being formed from the SEFIROT (categories or levels) of CHESED (kindness, symbolized by fire) and GEVURA (strength of character, symbolized by ice). It therefore is a synthesizer, bringing other powerful forces together in stability. Very much like in chemistry, salt (sodium chloride, Na-Cl) is formed with very strong bonds from a highly reactive metal (very electrically positive), and Chlorine, which is very negatively charged. Two highly dangerous materials come together to make a very stable compound.

So, even though salt can have negative connotations when used improperly, it can be highly beneficial when added judiciously. Salt can enhance and stabilize. It is a powerful natural force, which has a strong symbolic place in Judaism. Our ancestors used it in the Beit HaMikdash; we use on our dining room table, our symbolic altar.

When we dip our bread into salt, let’s try to remember all its positive messages. Ultimately, let’s pray that our spirituality attains the stability and permanence that the Covenant of Salt represents.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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